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Why worry about technology? ...Because the competition does!

The executives interviewed for this survey* were responsible for relationships with a variety of stakeholder groups; some are focused on traditional external customers, others on less traditionally defined internal customers. However, they expressed several common themes about the importance of using technology to build and maintain effective relationships with diverse stakeholders:

* Relationship management is a bottom-line objective, not a "nicety."

* The speed with which information is accessed and acted upon is critical to successful relationship management. Anticipation of stakeholder needs or actions is the ideal.

* Integration of communication technologies, including voice mail, E-mail, video programming, multi-media applications, word processing, graphics, databases, satellite conferencing and others is critical.

* Communication technologies must be interactive to help track changing customer needs so that corporate communicators can adapt their organizations and activities in anticipation and response.

* As external demands upon corporate communication functions become more complex, corporations continue to downsize and seek other operating efficiencies. Technology is key to the communication functions' abilities to do more with less.

* Many different corporate communication functions must be integrated, at least technologically, if not organizationally. There is a clear recognition that specialized communication functions by audience (media, employees, community leaders and government officials, for example) may need to exist. However, there is an equally clear emphasis on the need for these specialized functions to share information, access and resources.

The philosophy meets reality

While the survey participants were knowledgeable and articulate about the promise of technology, not one expressed complete satisfaction with the current state of affairs at his or her company. Yet an executive at company X could well envy another at company Y, for these companies collectively are employing technologies in very sophisticated ways. Some examples from various companies:

* In-house multi-media capabilities are employed to design and provide hundreds of employee orientation and training modules. When an employee accesses a training module, his personnel record is automatically updated in the company's mainframe computer.

* Local and wide area networks link as few as a dozen and as many as 2,200 of the company's professional communicators around the world via computer; a company-wide E-mail system links 90,000 employees, and makes E-mail available at employees' desks.

* An internal satellite video-conferencing capability with dedicated conference facilities is available in 50 countries.

* Touch-screen interactive employee suggestion boxes are placed strategically in facilities throughout the U.S. for employees who do not have PCs at their desks.

* Shared media databases track the company's complete history with thousands of journalists including stories written, people contacted in the company, general posture (hostile, friendly), industries or specialties covered, whether the journalist has visited the company or seen product demonstrations, etc.

* Linked databases allow corporate communicators to manage thousands of relationships among diverse stakeholder groups and to produce customized management reports.

* Several companies deliver a daily electronic company newsletter to employee PCs.

* Another company supports the high value it places on employee diversity by providing electronic bulletin boards for employee sub-groups, from those interested in Croatia to those interested in bebop jazz, minority issues, software and other business and non-business subjects.

Yet, the dream is far from reality in most of the companies interviewed. One company has an executive who "doesn't like" voice mail. Though staff employees depend upon it as a lifeline, managers and executives don't dare use this time-and-money-saving tool. Some companies' communicators are not yet linked by a local area network and thus can't access one another with E-mail; one managed to introduce its crisis team members to electronic pagers (beepers) but did so against much resistance.

However, the executives interviewed, despite their admitted frustrations with their own current states-of-the art, provided a clear consensus: The corporate communication function of the near future must rapidly approach the ideal for which they are all striving.

Future technology visions and plans

From simple upgrades to bring current reality into line with the visions they share, to organization-shaking concepts such as limiting customers to only those who can be served in a quality manner supported by technology, or to partners with whom cultures can be integrated through technology, the executives interviewed were unanimous in their agreement that the use of technology in corporate communication functions "isn't there yet."

The respondents were equally clear that technology uses in the future cannot be ignored, must be planned and managed and are resource-needy.

To be quite clear: Most of those interviewed currently are focused on bringing their own systems and applications up to standards that they believe represent current minimal state-of-the-art. Some, as detailed above, do not yet have even local area networks established in a single department. Many of those interviewed expressed frustration with the current state of affairs in their own organizations, some admitting that "you'd think it would be different in such a big company."

Issues of technology transition

Only one executive interviewed described a seamless transition from one technology to the next -- and that was "because what they had was too cumbersome to use and they were not happy with it." Those interviewed shared more than a common desire to take advantage of technology; they shared advice about obstacles to expect and strategies for overcoming them.

* Senior management buy-in to the use of technology is critical. Yet, on the whole, older employees, many of whom tend to be senior managers or executives, are frequently more reluctant than are younger employees and support staffs to embrace new technologies.

* Inaction because of frequent changes to technology can be paralyzing. Some movement at all is better than none. It is easier to upgrade to improved technologies once some technologies are in common use.

* Technology use requires constant attention and a long-term plan. Many companies have one or more full-time employees in a communication department devoted to full-time network administration, user support, exploring future needs and tracking changing technology developments. Several have task forces to plan and manage expansion in the use of technology.

* New technologies must be implemented in a measured, methodical way. Change causes upset. Although the upset cannot be eliminated, it can be reduced by slowly introducing changes in an environment that is heavy with user support and training.

* Technology "futurists" are best used to excite imagination, not lead transitions. Exposure to too much, too new, too soon frequently causes resistance to change to increase.

* As it is being implemented, there is a strong potential that technology will reduce, not improve, productivity. It is an expected part of the process that must be managed, both in terms of the expectations of the users and of management.

* Standardization of hardware and software helps reduce transitional problems and speed user training and informal peer cross-training. The ability for systems to communicate with one another is paramount.

* Early and broad involvement of all affected organizations is critical to success. Communication with all involved disciplines must be thorough, careful and repetitive, providing frequent opportunities for people to feel part of the process. Strikingly, although some interviewees have had technology planning programs in place for a long time, several have only begun first-time efforts to explore the use of technology within the past 12-24 months.

* Decisions to employ technologies must be made as objectively as any other corporate decisions. Careful cost-benefit analyses must guide decisions, and expected time or cost savings must be demonstrated before technologies are deployed.


While those interviewed express a variety of preferences for user training strategies, several elements are consistent:

* Task-specific training is more effective than general software application training. When a new software package is introduced, users should be trained to use elements that are immediately applicable to their jobs. These elements will differ by person.

* Immediate utility and high user interest help soften the entry of new technologies. One respondent used a specific strategy of introducing users to several new "toys with lots of bells and whistles" that immediately captured user interest. When the users were "hooked," he was able to introduce more methodical training and more broadly applicable software applications.

* Training by "techies" sometimes creates user problems who are put off or intimidated by highly technical jargon and too-detailed explanations of software or hardware capabilities. Whether by design or accident, more respondents use on-the-job training on an ongoing basis in which more experienced users support less experienced users.

* Training frequently carries a Catch-22: Use of technology will reduce the amount of time required to do many jobs. Yet staff frequently do not have time to learn the technologies.

* Formal classroom training is employed frequently, most often when new applications are introduced. Training may be conducted by vendors, in-house technology or training organizations or departmental network administrators.

One respondent, closely involved with software development, said that future software applications will be intuitive enough or contain enough context-sensitive on-line help that training will not be necessary in the same sense it is today.

Planning and administration

Of those interviewed here who were familiar with the process by which their companies plan and administer technology systems, all pointed to the need for a collaborative process, including a broad base of affected and potentially affected users of the technology. The benefits of this type of process are well-established among companies with a corporation-wide commitment to quality and customer-driven cultures.

Similar to training strategies, planning strategies frequently recognize the need to create a sense of ownership in the process and ultimate result. This argues for the need to involve all of those affected by technology in designing the systems and applications that will be employed.

* Most appoint an individual to be "in charge" of the process, which includes the demand for building coalitions, understanding user needs, managing installations, training and other aspects. Whether or not a centralized corporate function is available, such as a management information systems or office systems or technology systems group or division, most of the respondents pointed to the need for an "inside" point person.

* The majority of the respondents either have or pointed to the need for at least one full-time staff member within the communication organization to be responsible for network administration, future needs assessments, tracking developing technologies and training.

* Many interviewed expressed frustration with the fact that they are not able to attend to the issue of technology as much as they believe they should or would like to, and stressed the need to find some method to keep an organizational focus on the use of technology.

* Few of those interviewed have a formal, long-term technology-use plan or strategy. Many do not find this to be a weakness. Several, however, indicated that they have long-term technology plans -- one as old as 15 years.

Of particular interest, from the point that this effort is a benchmark study, is the fact that many of the company executives interviewed have begun to focus on technology issues within the past 12-24 months. Several have just established internal task forces to further explore and manage the process.

* This survey was conducted by CoreStates Financial Corp., a U.S. $29 billion bank holding company that recognizes that the use of technology is key to building and maintaining effective customer and corporate relationships. CoreStates has begun a process to bring its use of technology in line with 21st century demands. The first step in this process was a benchmark study of the use of communication technologies by large U.S. corporations, and is reported in this article. For a full text of the survey, contact David Kirk, APR, the public affairs consultant working with CoreStates in researching and reporting on its long-term plans. David Kirk, APR, Public Affairs & Public Relations Consultant, 1620 Waverly St., Philadelphia, PA 19146-1509.

Attending a Saturday evening social event, the chairman of a Fortune 100 company was invited unexpectedly to meet with the governor of a state in which his company has a major manufacturing site. At his beachfront vacation home on Sunday morning, he made a note on his pen-based personal digital assistant. By circling the word "mail," he sent his note by E-mail, using the integrated cellular modem, to the vice president of corporate communication. The chairman's request: a briefing package by noon Monday, to include the number of employees at the plant, the number of hours they had devoted to community volunteerism, their volunteer contributions and payroll taxes; the company's history with key local journalists and a recent clip review and analysis; the names, voting records and committee assignments of local state and federal legislators; the company's local tax contributions; the names of major local shareholders; and the names and history of local advocacy group leaders.

* The vice president, checking her E-mail from her weekend mountain retreat, accessed the company's database systems with her cellular-equipped laptop computer and, using a simple menu system, downloaded the requested information from several databases at headquarters and the plant. Knowing the chairman's penchant for pictures and paper, she reorganized the data into a five-page report with pie charts and clicked the "fax now" button. She beat the chairman's deadline before her first cup of coffee on Monday morning.


* AT&T -- Kent Planck, vice president, public relations

* BellCore -- John Peppas, manager, corporate communication

* Bristol-Myers Squibb -- Gail Sokolovsky, director of communications, U.S. Pharmaceutical Group

* Dow Chemical -- Matt Davis, manager of quality performance communication

* Federal Express -- Frank Sutherland, managing director, systems planning and design

* Hewlett-Packard -- Randy Whiting, manager of communication, technology services

* Levi Strauss -- John Onoda, director of corporate communication

* McDonald's Corporation -- Susan McBride, director of internal communication

* NBD Bank, N.A. -- J. Richard Johnson, first vice president and director, corporate communication

* Xerox Corporation -- Barbara McNear


1. Get all information that is customer-viewable into a consistent, revisable form electronically, available on some system somewhere. All information must be designed for electronic storage.

2. Provide that information in the form and manner that customers want when, where and how they want it. That causes us to build systems that provide very intuitive access and easy navigability.

3. We should not stop the customer from placing the order because we can't take it electronically. If we lead them down the path and they want to buy they should be able to do it electronically, that is, place an order when, where and how the want to.


To identify corporations "known to be" advanced in their use of, and philosophies about using, technology to support relationships within a quality environment, several electronic sources were used. These included key work searches in media databases available through the CompuServe Information Service and messages on electronic public relations, marketing and technology "bulletin boards." Traditional networking telephone conversations among editors of industry publications such as Computer World and Computer Operations Manager, technology consultants and others also were employed. The consultant then identified and contacted senior communication and/or technology executives of 10 companies that were identified and conducted 30 to 75 minute telephone conversations with each executive. Quotations used in this report are near-verbatim.


Paying for technology is handled differently at the companies whose executives were interviewed.

* Some allocate the total cost for departmental hardware and software in a corporate capital budget.

* Some budget hardware from a corporate or group/divisional capital budget and charge software costs to individual user groups or departments.

* Some charge all hardware and software costs to individual departments.

* Some share costs for corporate-wide systems among key user groups and charge individual departments for their own hardware and software needs.

* Virtually none of those interviewed argues strongly for or against any particular method of cost allocation. Individual corporate cultures and structures seemed in most cases to be the driving factor. None offered a strong argument for or against a particular method.


A diversity of technologies is employed by the companies interviewed, from 10-year-old word-processing software on stand-alone PCs, through integrated word-processing, graphics, communication and workflow applications on state-of-the-art PCs and LANs, to the international satellite teleconferencing networks mentioned above. Whether or not current applications are as sophisticated as the participants would like them to be, there is clear consensus that the following are minimal current technology needs:

* An E-mail capability.

* A voice mail capability.

* A LAN or WAN linking all corporate communicators in all locations.

* A compatible hardware platform.

* A graphic user interface (GUI) system. While many of those interviewed expressed a preference for the use of Apple computers because of "their greater user-friendliness," many -- including several with a preference for Apple computers -- are standardizing on an IBM platform, using the Microsoft Windows GUI. While Apple computers are used widely, most pockets of MAC use among those interviewed are in graphic and production functions, more so than across-the-board.

* Standardized application software packages including word-processing and graphic applications. The communicators interviewed here use spreadsheets minimally and most are still dependent upon paper-based facsimile transmissions.

* Database applications for key functions, most frequently media relations and government affairs.

* External communication capabilities (modern) for access to services such as LEXIS/NEXIS, CompuServe and others. Most of those interviewed, however, currently depend on another corporate department such as legal, information services, research or a library for these services. Not all see it as a function that must be available to every departmental user online.

* Access to laptop and/or home-based computers.


Despite the trials and tribulations of planning and implementing technology to support corporate communication functions, not one executive interviewed said, "Turn back!"

* Rapidly evolving technologies should not cause delays in automating communication functions. "Get something going," several respondents said, "and build from there."

* Keeping an eye on the future and planning for it is as critical a technology management job as managing the day-to-day realities of network administration, cost and user training. There was a strong agreement among those interviewed that structures for managing technology must include specific methods for remaining current with changes in technology. Most argued for a dedicated person, frequently the network manager, or a group charged with this specific responsibility.

* When asked what they would do over again, the respondents frequently said that the would have paid attention to the technology issue sooner than they did.

* Several offered practical political advice, suggesting that senior management support is the linchpin in implementing successful technology programs to support corporate communication functions.

* Several respondents took a very practical view and warned that technology for technology's sake can become a trap. The choice to use or not use a particular hardware of software solution must be married carefully to its real utility in serving a business need, reducing cost or improving efficiency.

David Kirk, APR, is a public affairs and public relations consultant in Philadelphia, Pa.
COPYRIGHT 1994 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1994, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

Article Details
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Title Annotation:includes related articles
Author:Kirk, David
Publication:Communication World
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Nov 1, 1994
Previous Article:Print: a road kill on the information superhighway?
Next Article:As easy as 123.

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